Australian among more than 70 killed in deadly Beirut warehouse explosion
At least one Australian is among more than 70 people killed in a deadly warehouse explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the death this morning and said his heart went out to residents of the city.
“There is normally around 20,000 Australians there at any time. We couldn't say because of COVID-19 restrictions how many returned. It is very distressing and I can confirm there has been one Australian that has been killed,” Mr Morrison told Sunrise.
The blast which has also injured more than 3000 people, rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky.
The cause of the explosion, which sparked fires, overturned cars and blew out windows and doors, was not immediately known.
Mr Morrison said it was “terribly devastating”.
“We can't give more details but the specifics at this time but our sympathies to all of the people in Lebanon. There is such a large Lebanese Australian community here and they would be anxious about loved ones,” he said.
Mr Morrison also said the Australian embassy in the Lebanese capital had been significantly impacted.
“Our embassy there, it was significant impacted. We can report all of the staff they are well,” he said.
“The building the embassy was in has been significantly compromised but aside from some cuts and scratches, our staff are OK.”
Officials say they expect the death toll to rise after Tuesday’s blast as emergency workers dig through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead.
It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago and stored at the port, had blown up.
Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has denied any role and offered help.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen.
“There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Hours after the blast, which erupted shortly after 6 pm local time, a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.
A security source said victims were taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were packed with wounded.
Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to help.
The blast was so big some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck.
Dazed, weeping and wounded people walked through streets searching for relatives.
“I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the nation.
“Those responsible will pay the price,” he said in his televised address, adding that details about the “dangerous warehouse” would be made public.
The interior minister told Al Jadeed TV that ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since 2014.
The US embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port followed by an enormous blast, sending up a white cloud and a fireball into the sky.
Those filming the incident from high buildings two kilometres from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.
The governor of Beirut port told Sky News a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had “disappeared” after the explosion.
President Michel Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. He said it was “unacceptable” that 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for six years without safety measures.
The prime minister called for a day of mourning.
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront.
What is ammonia nitrate?
- Ammonia nitrate is a white crystalline solid high in nitrogens and is highly soluble in water, which makes it ideal for use in agriculture.
- It is also used as a major component in explosives used in mining and civil construction.
- CSBP — owned by Wesfarmers — produces 780,000 tonnes of explosive-grade ammonium nitrate a year, with most produced for the mining industry. They have a plant in Kwinana.
- Porous prill ammonium nitrate — the form used by mining companies — is typically sold in 1000kg bags.
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